College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
AGNR Research

Faculty Research in Focus: Qin Wang

Department of Nutrition and Food Science
Photo Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Assistant Professor Qin Wang prefers her research subjects on the small side – teeny tiny even. Make no mistake, however. The goals and implications of her research are anything but miniscule.

Wang was drawn to the University of Maryland in 2008 after completing her Ph.D. and post-doc training at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by an opportunity to work in “the very exciting and cutting edge area of food nanotechnology.”

“This area is expanding and growing very fast,” says Wang, Ph.D.

Through nanotechnology, scientists can manipulate individual atoms, molecules or groups of molecules to create materials with new or vastly different properties to serve a variety of purposes. Wang’s research within the Department of Nutrition and Food Science focuses on using nanotechnology to enhance both human nutrition and food safety practices.

For example, Wang is interested in creating new food products that can help our bodies better utilize key nutrients and antioxidants. “When you consume these (fruits and vegetables), many of those antioxidants get lost in your stomach and never get into your intestines and are not absorbed effectively,” she says. Food products developed through nanotechnology could come in liquid, gel or powder forms and “we can either put it in a supplement form you can get in the drug stores or put it in the functional food – put it back into the foods as ingredients,” says Wang.

Additionally, Wang is using nanotechnology to develop new food packaging materials that are both biodegradable and help enhance food safety. Silver nanoparticles, for instance, can be embedded into storage bins and help kill bacteria from anything previously stored in the bins. Nanotechnology can also help keep foods fresher longer, help track outbreaks of harmful bacteria such as E. coli and even improve a food’s flavor or texture.  

It’s this overall goal of improving human health and nutrition that Wang says drives all of her research interests. Another recent focus within her lab has been studying microgreens – the tiny, immature versions of vegetables, herbs and other plants harvested only a week or two after germination. In a collaborative project with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wang and her fellow researchers found that microgreens contain four to six times more nutrients than their mature counterparts. It had long been speculated that microgreens packed a potent nutritional punch but no scientific research existed to support the theory until Wang and her team put it to the test. The findings, first released in 2012, garnered media attention across the country and have spurred researchers to assess microgreens further, looking at ways to extend their short shelf life and evaluating any food safety risks associated with the young seedlings. “Lots more research needs to be done in this area,” says Wang, who adds that other universities and institutes are also starting to study microgreens.

A native of China, Wang says she couldn’t have imagined where her career would take her when she was working on her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Environmental Chemistry at Nanjing University. After coming to the University of Maryland, she began to realize the far-reaching effects and possibilities that could result from her research. It’s a passion she seeks to pass on to the graduate and undergraduate students that work in her lab and enroll in her courses. For example, in her undergraduate course titled “Food Product Research and Development,” Wang encourages students to apply for different national competitions where they are required to develop new food products and see how they stack up against teams from across the country. She says interacting with students is one of her favorite parts of her job. “I really depend on them to keep up with everything and also to take on new ideas and get their input in the development of technology and experimental design,” says Wang. “We often learn from each other.”

Small in stature herself, it seems fitting that Wang’s research demonstrates how tiny, seemingly insignificant subjects can have such a profound impact on the big picture of human health. “It’s such a rewarding field to work in,” says Wang. “It’s so important for everyone and every family.”

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